Sexual whodunits and evolutionary psychology: The shaping of three novels
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Sexual whodunits and evolutionary psychology: The shaping of three novels

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From the book : Evolutionary Psychology 11 issue 1 : 243-247.

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Published 01 January 2013
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Language English
Evolutionary Psychology
www.epjournal.net2013. 11(1): 243247
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Essay
Sexual Whodunits and Evolutionary Psychology: The Shaping of Three Novels
Primal. Virgin Books, 2009, 384 pp., US$10.86 (ebook). Caballito. Hard Nut Books, 2012, 210 pp., US$9.99 (ebook). The Hitchhiker’s ChildNut Books, 2013, 239 pp., US$9.99 (ebook).. Hard
Robin Baker, Spain. Email:rrobinbaker@msn.com www.robinbaker.com.
Whodunit novels always used to be about crime, usually murder. One of their appeals was that after all the clues and “red herrings” the author could use some deviceor other at the end of the bookusually a confessionto reveal who really was the culprit. By comparison, a whodunit revolving around mistaken or confused paternity suffers because there can never be a convincing revelation at the end. A bloodtest can be engineered that proves whowasn’tthe fatherto prove beyond doubt who is. Anybut there can be no test “confession” is dissatisfying because the reader knows that neither the father even, as nor we shall see later, the mother can be certain of the truth anyway. Then along comes DNA testing and everything changes. Uncertainties about paternity and the sexual events that led up to that paternity can suddenly be resolved. I became hooked on thinking up scenarios, an obsession I owe to my evolutionary past. From 1981 to 1996, I was Reader in Zoology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Manchester, England, and in the final decade of that tenure my main research interest was the sexual biology of humans and other animals. My approach was evolutionary and hovered somewhere between biology and psychology. Several scientific papers came from my lab during this time, and just before the members of my group went their separate ways, I also published an academic book,Human Sperm Competition, which I cowrote with my former student, Mark Bellis. Then in 1996 I went my own way too, leaving academia to indulge a lifelong passion for writing. But I couldn’t abandon my evolutionary pastnot that I triedand found myself trying to bring the evolutionary approach to a wider audience than I had managed as a scientist. My first nonacademic book,Sperm Wars(1996), combined fiction and science and was essentially a popularization of my earlier coauthored tome. Now translated into 26 different languagesthe latest being Turkish, giving the book its first primarily Islamic audienceSperm Wars the bestseller lists in countries as different as Britain, made Germany, Poland, China and Japan. All of which seems to show that an evolutionary
Sexual whodunits and evolutionary psychology
approach to the human condition can be appreciated by an audience that stretches far beyond Western academia. It was a short step from writingSperm Warsto writing a whodunit. sperm Human competition centers on the causes and consequences of a woman having sperm from two or more men inside her reproductive tract, which inevitably leads to paternal uncertainty. So although the main thrust ofSperm Wars was evolutionarythe impact that sperm competition had on the shaping of human sexualitythe subject matter also provided the perfect background for creating plots for sexualwhodunit novels. I have published three novels so far:Primal (2009);Calabtoli and (2012);The Hitchhiker’s Childas described later, took its inspiration from the (2013). Each of them, wider field of evolutionary psychology. But each of them also has a sexualwhodunit thread. InPrimalstrands a group of university staff and, a series of apparent accidents students on a remote and uninhabited Pacific island and strips them of everything they had previously taken for granted. The group takes a year to escape and by the time they return home all the women are either pregnant or have a baby. With paternity uncertain in every case, DNA tests are performed. But when initially it proves impossible to identify the father of one of the children, the whole misadventure is thrown into new reliefand not until the paternity issue is resolved do all the other misfortunes that befell the group slot into place. InCablailot, a teenage girl begins to investigate the death of the father she never knew. Officially he committed suicide but she suspects murder and delves deeper. As she collects information about the man and his various traits she begins to doubt that he could be her father. Either that, or her supposed mother could not have been her mother. Not until her parentage is resolved does the truth about her potential father’s death emerge.Before DNA testing, one way a sexual whodunit could have tried to offer a solution was for the mother to claim that she only ever had sex with one man. But, asThe Hitchhiker’s Childshows, such a claim in fact proves nothing about paternity. As the story unfolds, four women each claim total fidelity to their partner, yet each produces a child fathered by another man. Two of the women, including the hitchhiker of the title, could simply be lying. Another could have been too drunk to know what happened on the critical night. But in the fourth woman’s case, her conceiving to the biological father really does seem to be impossible: they never met. There is a fifth conception too, and that also seems impossible: a lioness in the Kalahari Desert that the narratora research zoologistdiscovers conceived to a lion that never got within 20 kilometers of her. With lives and livelihoods at stake, the narrator and his research team have no choice but to try to solve the mystery of these conceptions. And when they do, they uncover a situation with far reaching consequences. Althnovels contain a thread or two of sexual “whodunitry”,ough all three of my that is not their only element inspired by evolutionary psychology. The field has illuminated such a broad range of the human experience that almost any research paper could be fodder for a novelist. I have already described in this journal (Baker, 2011) how Primal shaped by  wasevolutionary science. How much would a group of young people, stripped of everything and marooned on an island, revert to primate instincts? More specifically, which species of ape would they most closely resemble? All questions and
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answers were driven by theories that have been generated within evolu tionary psychology and biology. In a way,baCaitllo continues thePrimal though this time taking its theme, inspiration from the anthropological rather than the primatological branch of evolutionary psychology. The narrator, a young anthropologist, discovers two handwritten pages, which he deduces and hopes are part of an unpublished autobiography by an Edwardian woman who for 50 years lived among a stoneage Amazonian tribe. Obsessed with discovering what the woman had witnessed, observed, and maybe suffered, he sets about trying to track down the rest of her manuscript. When he does, we learn bit by bit not only about the behavior of the Amazonian tribe but also what happened to the woman and her descendants when she returned to civilization. In January 1999, my view changed on how the earliest human societies behaved sexually. I had been invited to lecture at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Anaheim, California. My role was to compare the sexual behavior of women in twentiethcentury Britain with that of their counterparts in certain Amazonian tribes. Until that symposium, I had always supported the traditional view that the earliest humans were little different from the modern: outwardly monogamous but open to infidelities that they strove to keep secret. But as I listened to my fellow speakers describing the behavior of tribe after tribe from lowland South America, I slowly accepted that there was a much more likely alternative. And that alternative is the behavior I gave to the otherwise fictional tribe around whichotiCallbaoversevl. I made this decision about human sexual ancestry too late to develop in my academic work. But as a novelist I found the thesis a goldmine of images and ideas. Caballito is a story of a clash of cultures and prejudices. It is also a story about ancient instincts battling with modern morals, exactly the sort of conflict that many of my former colleagues in the evolutionary field continue to explore. Maybe my continuing fascination with such questions simply shows that I haven’t totally let go of my past once an evolutionary scientist, always an evolutionary scientist. But I also hope that the questions the novel raises and the answers it suggests say something of interest to those still active in research.BothPrimal andaCllabito their inspirations from large fields within drew evolutionary psychology; fields that have generated a multitude of scientific papers. In contrast,The Hitchhiker’s Childinspired quite literally by a single paper that came was from a different branch of evolutionary psychology: experimental. The paper concerned was published in this journal,Evolutionary Psychology,but I cannot give the reference nor name the scientists here without creating a massive spoiler for anybody who does happen to read the book. Full credit and reference though is given at the end of the novel. The apparently impossible conceptions inThe Hitchhiker’s Child trigger a variety of recriminations on the women concerned. The suspicion of infidelity is, after all, one of the commonest causes of domestic violence, as a number of studies have demonstrated. But the violence and confusion generated by the conceptions inThe Hitchhiker’s Childare not the only consequences of interest to evolutionary psychologists. Another is the dilemma of what a researcher should do when the only way to answer a question of potential social significance is to perform an experiment that most people would say is ethically
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unacceptable. In the book the narrator and his research team gradually find themselves pushed into a situation in which the only way to exonerate a few potentially innocent women (and a man) and prevent further injustice to others in the future is to solve the mystery of the hitchhiker’s child. Yet the only way they can do so is to carry out an experiment that is so unethical it would be academic suicide for them all, though being based in the remote Kalahari does have its advantages when trying to hide what they are doing from the academic world. Although my inspiration forThe Hitchhiker’s Child came from a published paper by others, I do feel a personal involvement. Partly this involvement is academicI would like to think that some of my own research laid one of the foundations for the ideabut partly it is also from guilt. A few years ago now, I was asked to give my “expert” opinion on a piece of evidence in a court case. For obvious reasons I cannot give any details that might identify the specific case, but the essence was as follows. A man and his pubertal daughter both vigorously denied any form of sexual contact, yet a paternity test showed that the man was indeed the father of the daughter’s child. In his defense, the man could suggest only one way that his daughter could have conceived to him, and I was asked if I thought this method of conception was possible. At the time, while stressing that nobody could say the father’s suggestion was totally impossible, my opinion was that it was most unlikely. Other experts were of the same opinion and the man was jailed. Even today I would say the same about that particular means of conception, so would most. But, while writingThe Hitchhiker’s Child, I realized that there was an alternative and became haunted by the thought that I might have contributed towards an innocent man being jailed. It is far too late for the real cause to be proved either waybut I now think it possible that father and daughter may have been telling the truth. AfterThe Hitchhiker’s Childwas published early in January 2013, I contacted two wellknown journalists with whom I have worked in the past and whose work I greatly admire. My suggestion was that they bring the method of conception at the center of my novel to a wider audience, maybe even start a campaign for it to be taken into account in such cases as the father and daughter above. I was of course hoping for publicity for my book, but I was also hoping that an article by either of the journalists might alert a wide audience to the social and legal implications of this so far ignored ideaan idea moreover with the potential to avert miscarriages of justice and to provide wrongly accused men and women, disbelieved by partners or lawyers, with a means of vindicating themselves. But both of my journalists said the same thing: “Bring me proof that this actually happens, or at least put me in touch with someone who claims to be a victim, then there might be an article in the idea.Of course both were right to be cautiousbut it means the situation is a stalemate, which returnsus to the researcher’s dilemma.Without real proof nobody is likely to believe that such conceptions occur, nobody is likely to claim they are a victim for fear of ridicule, and criminal courts are unlikely to take the possibility into account. Yet “real” proof can only come from the unethical and unpublishable experiment described in the novel. Which means that for the moment, no matter how many men and particularly women really have suffered the same fates as those inThe Hitchhiker’s Child, possible explanation must remain confined to the pages of the
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fictiona suggestion by scientists in an article inand to Evolutionary Psychology.
References
Baker, R. R. (1996).Sperm Wars: The science of sex. New York: Basic Books. Baker, R. R. (2009).Primal. Retrieved fromhtt:p//ww.wmaza/Pom.conlmari ebook/dp/B0031RS8KS/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1284753693&sr=1 1 Baker, R. R. (2011). Evolutionary psychology and the shaping of the novelPrimal. Evolutionary Psychology, 9, 181185. Baker, R. R. (2012).baCaitllo. Retrieved fromth/:pt.ama/wwwcom/zon.lltiaCabo ebook/dp/B00AMPOC8E/ref=sr_1_1?s=digitaltext&ie=UTF8&qid=1355380548&sr=11 Baker, R. R. (2013).The Hitchhiker’s Child. Retrieved fromThezon.com/w/wwa.amthpt/: HitchhikersChildebook/dp/B00AWTERSU/ref=sr_1_1?s=digitaltext&ie=UTF8&qid=1357390252&sr=11
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